Birth to in­tro­spec­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gretchen Shirm

dis­tinctly eth­i­cal di­men­sion. A large por­tion of Moth­er­hood is de­voted to Heti’s con­sul­ta­tion of var­i­ous forms of div­ina­tion: she has a tarot read­ing and an im­promptu pre­dic­tion from a psy­chic. She poses ques­tions to the I-Ching via coins that an­swer ran­domly Yes or No. At one level it seems flip­pant to pose such se­ri­ous ques­tions to such un­sci­en­tific meth­ods.

But Heti recog­nises that just as she del­e­gates the ques­tion of the mean­ing of her life to these ex­ter­nal au­thor­i­ties, par­ents do the same with their chil­dren. Ei­ther their chil­dren be­come the source of their mean­ing or, by not re­solv­ing the ques­tion of how to live ad­e­quately them­selves, par­ents live with the con­so­la­tion that their chil­dren may yet do so.

That is why the de­ci­sion to not have chil­dren for Heti is so dif­fi­cult. More than any­thing, it in­volves a recog­ni­tion that re­spon­si­bil­ity for her own hap­pi­ness be­gins and ends with her.

“There is a kind of sad­ness in not want­ing the things that give so many other peo­ple their life’s mean­ing.” It’s true there is an un­de­ni­able grief at the heart of this book and it has to do with the con­trac­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ties that comes with adult life. Ei­ther Heti makes a de­ci­sion or her own bi­ol­ogy closes off the al­ter­na­tive.

In nar­ra­tives con­structed from women’s lives moth­er­hood is the happy end­ing, the event that the woman her­self can­not hope to sur­pass. Moth­er­hood is not so much a sub­ver­sion of this but a re­jec­tion of tra­di­tional nar­ra­tive. Heti’s re­al­i­sa­tions are dis­tinctly mid­dle-aged: there is no golden arch­way we pass through into hap­pi­ness. On the other side of our most sig­nif­i­cant de­ci­sions, there is only more life.

She watches a video of a fam­ily hol­i­day from when she was nine or 10, in which her mother tells her con­temp­tu­ously to “stop act­ing”; that her act­ing and her­self are “com­pletely mixed up”. It’s a cruel ob­ser­va­tion, yet therein lies an abid­ing truth. Most re­al­ist writ­ers aim for verisimil­i­tude in their work. In Heti’s es­say­is­tic de­scrip­tion and re­fusal of con­fec­tion, the dis­tance be­tween her life and writ­ing are all but elided. That may not be the eas­i­est way to ne­go­ti­ate life, but it may be the high­est form of praise that can be ac­corded to a nov­el­ist. is a writer and critic.

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